Category Archives: Island Life

The Second Anne Shirley

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“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-two years the musical ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Eighteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, it is in the way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But, I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The frontier woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, in the 1940s was a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly 500 miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war. She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winter being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted ‘Anne of Green Gables’ headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but hadn’t yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen-years-old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested she take singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something corresponding to the likeness of an orphan. Actors said, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived I was deaf in one ear. I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But, the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952, ‘Akage no An’ became a part of the country’s school curriculum, and remains popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married 47 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley Stickings was ready to go.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors often are forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where Barry Stickings was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise ‘Anne of Green Gables’.

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But, she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take awhile for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look.” She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down Barry Stickings was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But, I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, said there were only three things anyone needed for a happy life. “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 the Stickings family moved to the UK. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old, originally the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.” Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town west of Cavendish on the north shore. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, sitting on the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge the thirty thrill feet down into the bay.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to come back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she said, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was ‘The Shore Field’ by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But, I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straightjacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look backward, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of ‘Anne of Green Gables’, seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

Last year, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockeysticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play ‘The Glass Menagerie’ by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

This year, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley is playing the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’.

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When women actors reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft weren’t making sense.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” said George Bernard Shaw.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are just getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene, punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill up and down the spine, the first time and time in hand through the curtain call.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Photograph by Andrea Surich

Gone Red Road

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There are more than six thousand kilometers of two-lane roads on the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. About two thousand of those kilometers are unpaved. All of the unpaved tracks are red clay dirt roads. Many of the paved roads are reddish, too.

“At one time there was island stone and beach sand that was used in concrete,” explained Jamie Reid, the PEI operations manager for USCO Concrete.

The pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island is layered over sandstone bedrock. Sandstone can be dug up by backhoes and is still sometimes used for local and seasonal roads. Wet weather transforms unpaved tracks into what some islanders call baby poop.

The sandstone is leavened with iron oxide, or rust, giving the landscape its distinctive red color beneath wide blue skies overlooking green fields. The Indians who lived on the island before European colonization called it Epekwitk. They thought their god Glooscap, after he finished making the rest of the world, with a final flourish mixed his colors and made their island.

“When I was a kid most of the roads around here were dirt,” said Kelly Doyle. “Sometimes after a bad winter storm you couldn’t go anywhere for a day-or-two.”

The first roads were built in the late 1760s. At the turn of the 20th century cars were banned on most roads most of the time, especially on market days. A Red Flag law was passed ordering there be a man at the front of every car with a red flag, ready to wave it just in case. By 1919 cars could go anywhere and the red flags were put away.

Kelly Doyle has lived in North Rustico, a small town on a natural harbor on the north side of Prince Edward Island along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, most of his life. He owns the Coastline Cottages on the eponymous Doyle’s Cove on the National Seashore, operates PEI Select Tours, and has been a lobster fisherman, on-and-off, for more than twenty seasons.

“I grew up on a mixed farm. It wasn’t anything elaborate, basically turnips, which is a rutabaga, and we grew grain, barley, and wheat. My father was the farmer.”

Mixed farms are for families who need a farmer three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tom and Doris “Dottie” Doyle farmed 100 acres, although at one time the family had almost 400 acres. “Most of our land is rented,” said Kelly Doyle. ”We used to have seven fields on our 100 acres, but now it’s three fields.”

By the early 1900s PEI’s thick forests had been largely cleared and ninety percent of the island’s land was being farmed. There were more than 12,000 farms, almost all of them between fifty to one hundred acres. The land was sub-divided by dykes, which are walls built of rocks dug up from the fields.

“Those dykes were full of berries,” said Kelly. “Our mom used to send us back in the fields with buckets. We’d come back with them full of wild raspberries and blueberries.”

After World War II province-wide development plans, tractors, and technology led to modernization, bigger farms, and one-crop planting. By 2006 there were only 1,700 working farms on Prince Edward Island and more than half of them were growing potatoes. PEI is sometimes called Spud Island.

“Fields were smaller fifty years ago,” said Kelly. “Maybe it should have stayed that way. Now they’ve ripped out all the dykes and sprays kill all the wild berries. It’s a shame to see it.”

Tom Doyle, however, was the only Doyle who ever farmed.

“They were boat people from Ireland in 1847,” said Kelly Doyle. “It was on his third sailing here that my great-great-grandfather landed and stayed. He did something so that the Queen, or somebody, granted him land, and two shore lots.”

By 1850 a quarter of the people on Prince Edward Island were Irish. The last wave of immigrants was called the Monaghan settlers because they came from County Monaghan. They often paid their own way to PEI and made their own way once on the island, rather than tenant farming.

Most freeholders farmed and controlled livestock. By the mid-1800s PEI was already exporting surplus foodstuff to neighboring provinces and Great Britain. The Doyle’s, however, raised horses and propagated thoroughbreds. The family later took advantage of fashion and bred black silver foxes for their pelts.

The secret of breeding foxes for their pelts was solved in the late 19th century on Prince Edward Island. Twenty years later single pelts sold for as much as $2000.00, at a time when farm laborers made a dollar a day. In 1913 the provincial government estimated foxes were worth twice as much as “all of the cattle, horses, sheep, swine, and poultry” on the island.

But, by the 1950s the fox industry was finished. “When they went out of style my dad let all their foxes out and he became a farmer.”

Kelly Doyle grew up on the family farm and went to the nearby Stella Maris School, across the street from the Church of Stella Maris. The school was built in 1940 and burned to the ground in 1954. “We stood looking utterly helpless in our misery,” a nun at the nearby Stella Maris Convent wrote in her diary. A year later, a year before Kelly Doyle’s birth, the village re-built their school. “It is the most modern fourteen room school in the province,” noted the Guardian newspaper in its feature article.

“I went grades one through nine. Almost everybody my age quit in grade nine. It was the 70s. There was no need of education around here. Fathers would tell their kids, you’re not going to do anything in school, get to work in the boat. We all said we’ve got better things to do and banged out of there.”

As a young man he wasn’t ready for boat work, roaming in Lower Canada instead, living in Montreal and sowing a bushel full of wild oats, until returning to North Rustico. He built a cottage on family land on a hillside overlooking Doyle’s Cove, but couldn’t find work.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, she was pretty lean here. There was no money around for years.” In the 1980s the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island was the lowest in Canada, only 56% of the national average. Next to Newfoundland, the province had the lowest per capita income in the country. When Kelly Doyle was offered work on a fishing boat sailing out of the North Rustico harbor, he took it.

“When I first started fishing everyone had a gasoline engine in an old wooden boat. Everything was done manually, except for hydraulics to haul gear off the bottom. The steering was even done by chains. Now everything is fiberglas, everything is diesel, and everything is hydraulics.”

Fish men going door-to-door selling cod was a way of life until the 1980s, when a ban on the taking of ground fish was enacted. Fish stocks had been over-exploited up and down Atlantic Canada and were severely depleted. “When I started people were baiting hooks and hauling trawls for halibut, haddock, and cod. Then the moratorium came in. All we were allowed was lobster.”

Kelly Doyle has been fishing for lobster ever since then.

“Lobster traps were invented a while ago and they’re as simple as mousetraps,” he said.

Except, unlike mousetraps, lobster traps are remarkably inefficient, although they almost always get the job done. Invented just more than one hundred years ago, they have changed little in the interim. Even though entrances to the traps are one-way, any lobster that tries to escape can get away, if it has a mind to.

“My theory is there are two ways lobsters get caught,” said Kelly. “One way is what I call simple minded.” Since lobster brains are about the size of the tip of a fountain pen, he might be right.

“Lobsters won’t usually back out the same way they’ve come in. They crawl up the net, there’s a flap on it, and once they’re in that they can’t go back. The other way they get caught is they just stay too long in the trap eating bait, and when we jerk it out of the water they get tossed into the back, by the sheer momentum of us pulling it up with the hauler.”

Since lobsters spend most of their time racking their brains about where their next meal is coming from, crawling on their walking legs to get to it, and finally eating all the crabs, mollusks, fish, and even other lobsters they can get, it adds weight to Mr. Doyle’s second theory, too.

Kelly Doyle’s brothers, John, Mike, and Kenny, all fished. “We weren’t farmers, but we weren’t fishermen, either, although I think it was naturally in our blood, since every one of us was at ease on the water.”

John Doyle fished for several years before marrying and moving to Ontario to raise a family. “Mike had rubber boots and oil gear and he went out, too, but then he got into TV’s.” Mike Doyle was one of the first satellite television providers on PEI. Later he transitioned from catching lobsters to serving them at his Blue Mussel Café, a seasonal seafood restaurant, at the far end of the North Rustico harbor.

Kenny Doyle spent fifteen years fishing on local boats, and the next ten years fishing commercially with his brother, Kelly. “He’s captained deep-sea fishing boats out of Rustico for fifteen years, too. Kenny’s an able man behind the wheel.”

Cathy and Elaine, the Doyle sisters, stayed on dry land. They did so for good reason. In North America fishing boats sink to the bottom of the sea at the rate of one every three days. Imperfect storms can roil the ocean. “You get black and bruised,” said Kelly. “During those seas, you do everything slower. You have to be a lot more careful with your gear, your traps, and the rope under your feet. You always have to watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Kelly Doyle fishes with his partner, Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since they were youngsters, although nine years separates them. “Paul, that’s my buddy, that’s my partner in crime.” Their boat is the Flying Spray, a modern, high-bowed fiberglas craft built in nearby Kensington. “Paul’s roundish, built a bit like a buoy. He lives right here in the crick.”

North Rustico has been known as the crick for many years. “There was a creek that ran right through the village,” said Kelly. “The people from Charlottetown didn’t know what a creek was, or misunderstood, and ended up calling it the crick, so we ended up being nicknamed that.”

There are only three houses on the shore lots to one side of Doyle’s Cove. One of them is a newer house built by Kenny Doyle, the other is the old Doyle family house, and the house nearest the cove is Andy’s Surfside Inn. Andy Doyle is Kelly Doyle’s uncle. “Andy turns 90 this year and he’s still over there.”

Kelly Doyle’s all-year cottage, large sliding glass doors fronting the ocean, is on the other side of Gulf Shore Parkway, the National Park road between Cavendish and North Rustico. Since the late-80s he has built five seasonal cottages adjacent to his, which are the Coastline Cottages, on the crest of the hill overlooking Doyle’s Cove. In 2000 he added a kidney-shaped seawater pool.

“People thought, I’m turning it into a tourist trap,” he laughed.

“Most of my friends ended up getting married. I ended up having cottages and getting in debt. There was no money around here for years. We’re all making a living now, but there still isn’t any amount of it.”

Kelly Doyle owned and operated Amanda’s, a fresh seafood diner, in North Rustico for many years. In the 1960s his parents had a small restaurant in nearby Cavendish. “It was 7 cents for pop, 30 cents for a hamburger, and 17 cents for fries back then. That was the kind of money you made in 1964. There were six kids in our family. Some of those French Acadian families had twenty births. It was no different for anyone.”

Besides his cottages and sailing for lobster the months of May and June, like many men and women on Prince Edward Island he has another job to keep his head above water. Mr. Doyle operates PEI Select, a tour guide service catering to Japanese tourists visiting Anne’s Land, the imaginary home of ‘Anne of Green Gables’. The series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery, about a plucky red-haired girl, are big in Japan. In 2014 a Japanese-language version of the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ musical wrapped up a sold-out nationwide tour by playing in Tokyo.

In the spring Kelly Doyle rents his farmland to neighboring farmers for hay, grain, and soybeans. “They grow food that uses the least herbicides and pesticides,” he explained.

Coastline Cottages, the Doyle houses, and the cove are in the National Park, but are not the National Park. The park was established in 1937 and encompasses more than 5000 acres of coastal headlands, sand dunes, and beaches. The Doyle’s didn’t sell their land when the park was being formed on the central north shore of Prince Edward Island.

“But, they have the patience to wait everybody out,” said Kelly Doyle. “That’s the beauty of the National Park. You don’t want to sell right now? That’s fine. Your son will want to sell, and if he doesn’t want to, his son will. If it takes two hundred years we will get you out of this park.”

Only change is unchanging, even though when it does it sometimes seems like not much is different. “There’ve been a lot of changes around the island, but it’s nice to go home and say it hasn’t changed much right here. That’s another beauty of the National Park. Since it’s a national park, it stays the same.”

About 285 million years ago Prince Edward Island was a mountain range. Over time it evolved into a low-lying basin as glaciers advanced and retreated. Most of the ice was gone by 10,000 years ago and the island slowly took shape.

Living in a traditional farming and fishing community, looking past the sandstone cliffs of Doyle’s Cove and out over the wide Atlantic Ocean, from the vantage point of Kelly Doyle’s deck it can seem like little has changed in a long time.

“Only the rabbits and trees get bigger,” he said.

But, before the recently rebuilt Gulf Shore Parkway, which features a new all-purpose trail as it winds down a long highland past the cove, was the old Gulf Shore Parkway, it wasn’t a road, at all.

“When the road came in sometime in the 1950s it cut our farm in half, ” said Kelly. Before it was a road it was a hillside. When it rained in early spring or late fall, and especially when it rained all day, the slope that is now the road turned into a red clay slippery slope of Prince Edward Island sandstone.

The Doyle’s still got to where they had to go. Sometimes any road, or even no road at all, will get you where you want to go.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Photograph by Denise Robinson, Albany, Prince Edward Island

The Face in the Bunker Gear

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Bunker gear is what a firefighter wears, boots pants jacket, and more modern apparatus, like masks and breathing cylinders, to stay safe and be effective when responding to an emergency. It is also called turnout gear, which is what firefighters do, turning out when there’s an alarm. The protective clothing is triple-layered and fire resistant. It is sometimes stowed beside or under a firefighter’s bunk at the station.

It all weighs more than 50 pounds, and that’s before picking up an ax or an extinguisher. Two hundred-some years ago headgear was a felt cap meant to keep water out of your eyes. Today’s helmet, high-peaked with a long rear brim, was first introduced in the 1830s. The New York City luggage maker who designed it was also a volunteer fireman.

Fighting fires means a lot of stepping up and down bending crawling, as well as working with your arms both in front of and over your head. When a firefighter bends at the knee or waist they need added length in their pants and jacket to accommodate their movements. Although bunker gear isn’t necessarily oversized, it’s oversized for mobility’s sake.

When a firefighter is in full bunker gear it’s hard to tell if the reflective-striped all-suited-up hulk pulling hose off a truck is a man or a woman. If it’s the fire chief of North Rustico in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island doing the work, it’s a woman.

It is Alison Larkin. A member of the town’s fire department since she was 18-years-old, she is in charge of the 30-man-and-woman volunteer company.

Before being appointed fire chief in the spring of 2016, the 28-year-old Ms. Larkin was and remains a full-time paramedic with Island EMS, where she has worked for seven years. But, before becoming a professional lifesaver, after graduating from high school, she had to first apply to the paramedic program at PEI’s Holland College.

She didn’t get in.

“My high school marks were terrible,” she said. “I loved school, all my friends, but I did just enough to pass.”

Regrouping, she took Adult Education classes, upgrading her math, science, and English scores. “I had no problem working on my own,” she said. “Healthcare was something I wanted to do and my best friends weren’t around to influence me about going or not going to class.” In the meantime, she filled out an application and was accepted as a member of the North Rustico Fire Department.

There are more than 125,000 volunteer firefighters across Canada, most of them serving in countryside that can’t afford to staff a full-time career department. Volunteer firefighters date to the year 6 in the city of Rome.

North Rustico is a small town of fewer than 600 year-round residents on the central north shore of the province, on a natural harbor along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The National Park shoreline is a short walk from the harbor.

Although her family lives in the town of Rusticoville, her hometown is within a few miles driving on rising and falling rural roads of Anglo Rustico, South Rustico, and Rustico, as well as North Rustico. “I pretty much knew everyone in the department from being around here.” She spent her first year learning the ropes.

Alison’s plan was to bring her new marks and newfound experience in the fire department to bear in petitioning for admission to Holland College. “They save some seats in each course for people who have upgraded their marks,” she said. The next year she applied to the paramedic program again.

She didn’t get in.

She went to work at Lorne’s Snack Bar in North Rustico. “I waited tables, cooked, cleaned, everything. They had the best poutine and gravy in town.” Lorne’s was a stone’s throw from the Irving service station owned by her parents. “My dad does all the mechanics at the back and mom manages the front. You see a pretty lady walking around, that’s my mom.”

One day the following year her mother walked over to Lorne’s from the service station and dropped off a letter addressed to her. She slid the poutine she was making to the side. She opened the letter.

“I remember freaking out behind the counter,” she said. Alison Larkin had finally gotten into Holland College.

It’s when first and second chances haven’t played out that the third time’s a charm.

”I’m happy it took that long,” said Alison. “It can be a crazy job, seeing all the stuff you see. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. How do you help people when you have no life experience?”

When first responders get to where they’re going there’s no waiting. They’re always stepping into something that’s gone wrong. When stepping into the middle of some emergencies they hear see smell things that most people never do, and don’t want to. Their job is to help people, sometimes people whose lives are hanging in the balance.

“It’s stressful, very stressful” said Alison. “I don’t carry a lot of the calls with me. If you hold on to it, get personal with it, you’re never going to last. My brain just lets me do the call and let it go.”

It was after Alison Larkin prevailed and became a paramedic and found work that she was able to stay in the Land of Rustico, stay on the North Rustico Fire Department, and stay on Prince Edward Island. “It’s a beautiful place, a great place to be, but it’s hard to make a living.”

Recent data released by Statistics Canada suggests that PEI natives have been moving to other provinces in search of work at a rate not seen in 30 years. “Five thousand people in Prince Edward Island declare Prince Edward Island as their home, but work in Alberta,” said Workforce and Advanced Learning Minister Richard Brown.

“There ‘s not a lot of work here, you can’t make any money,” said Alison “It’s hard to buy farms and lobster gear, it’s so expensive, so finding a good well-paying job was the biggest thing, definitely.”

In the meantime she became more involved with her town’s fire department. “I fell in love with the firefighting side of things, almost changed my career to it.” She trained at the PEI Firefighters School “I loved it, got right into it. I loved hanging around with the guys.” She trained in fire and search simulators, climbed real ladders, and hauled high-pressure hoses. She aced the question and answer test at the end.

The men and women sitting in a fire truck speeding to the scene of a calamity do one of the most physically demanding of all jobs. No emergency call they go on is ever the same, from chain sawing holes in a steep roof ventilating it to dragging someone out of something smoky hot dark on fire to safety.

The first fire Alison Larkin fought was her helping handle a hose cooling off a propane tank that was next to a burning building. “It was a total adrenaline rush. It’s not boring. Every day is different.” It takes steady nerves. Half-hour bottles of air can empty fast if you lose your composure.

“Not every woman can do it, but not every man can do it, either,” said Alison. “There are definitely people who are built for it, man or woman. It’s hard, but I can do it. I’ve only ever been pushed further by the guys.”

The first female firefighter, a young slave from New York City, was Molly Williams, described in 1815 “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” When Emma Vernell’s husband died in the line of duty in the 1920s, she took his place on Westside Hose Company #1, becoming the first firewoman officially recognized by New Jersey.

The first female career firefighter was hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia in 1973. By the middle of the 1980s about 1% of all firefighters were women. Today more than 3% of them are women. On Prince Edward Island 65 of the approximately 1,000 firefighters are female, twice the national average. In 2016 Toronto Fire Services, the largest Canadian municipal fire department, made history when its top three graduates were women.

Alison Larkin made history when she was appointed fire chief.

“The job came up, so I put my name in,” she said. The chief who was stepping down recommended the stepping-stone of standing for deputy chief. “Why don’t you go for chief,” some of the members suggested. “If you’re going to help me, if I have your support, I will do it,” she said. The members voted her in and at a Committee of Council Meeting the town confirmed her appointment.

“The opportunity came up and I just took it.”

She is the first woman on Prince Edward Island to hold the post and one of only three women in the Maritimes who are fire chiefs. Making history is being who you are, not being your past history, not letting anything in your past keep you from doing something in the present.

“A woman fire chief fifty years ago? No, definitely not, but there are now,” said Alison. “I don’t know what changed. Maybe women decided, yeah, we can do it, and men decided, yeah, women can do it. Back then it would have been crazy. I think the culture has changed.”

Jane Ledwell of PEI’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women agrees, adding that Alsion Larkin is a “terrific role model. We are so thrilled to see she has been named PEI’s first female fire chief.”

After finishing her paramedic courses and finding work with Island EMS, Alison went back to PEI Firefighters School for more training. She is the first woman in the province to gain Level II accreditation and the next year was sought out to become a part-time instructor. “They really built up my confidence. I never thought I’d be teaching there.”

The North Rustico Fire Department is an all-volunteer force. Nobody gets paid, “I know a lot of people can’t understand that, but what we do we do for this community,” said Alison. Not everything that counts is just counting what’s in your wallet.

“We get calls to people’s homes on their worst day. That’s what we’re there for, to turn a bad situation into something manageable, try to make them feel a little bit better. The most rewarding part of the job is when someone thanks us, says we turned their crisis into not a crisis.”

The new fire chief has put a new emphasis on training. ”It’s a big thing. We’re always working on that.” The department meets every Tuesday night. One Tuesday is maintenance night on the rescue vehicle, the tanker truck, and the two fire trucks. Two of the Tuesday nights are devoted to training.

“It was more known as a boy’s club long ago, you come and hang out, when really now it’s more geared toward training, and doing a lot of work and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and what they’re doing.”

Safety is the cornerstone of firefighting. Although firefighters die at a rate barely greater than the rate for cashiers, when trouble comes it’s not a dollar bill paper cut, it’s a chain saw gone haywire. At the end of the day training is what keeps you from putting your life on the line. “You never want to put people into situations you feel they’re not trained for,” said Alison.

Just like cauliflower is just cabbage with a higher education, firefighters are just men and women who put their bunker pants on one leg at a time, except that before they’re even in their gear they know what to do next. Practice may not make perfect, but it makes getting it wrong less likely.

At the North Rustico fire station the department’s emphasis on training has gone the extra mile, extending to family pets. Atlantic Vet College recently schooled the members on animal first aid and rescue, reviewing facets from cardiac arrest to breathing distress.

One of the firefighters volunteered his unsuspecting dog as a guinea pig. “We found out how much oxygen we needed to turn the masks on to, what flow rate for what animal,” said Alison “They gave us pointers in how to go up to a scared dog or cat and get them to come to us.”

Besides getting everyone’s training up to speed, getting to where they have to go in a timely fashion is another goal she has set. “Our old trucks are just old. It’s time for new ones. After 25 years you need to upgrade your equipment.” Like roads and bridges, trucks don’t upgrade themselves. It takes someone to make it happen.

Although firefighters are faceless in their bunker suits and breathing masks, when Allison Larkin is off the truck and back at the North Rustico station after an emergency call, stripping off her gear, helmet pants jacket boots, there‘s no mistaking who she is.

She’s the firefighter with her toenails painted purple.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Lobsterman

111209-lobster

“It will bring tears to a grown man’s eyes,” said Kelly Doyle, a lobsterman who works out of the Prince Edward Island harbor of North Rustico. He was talking about lobster claws. The bite force of a large dog in pounds per square inch is about 500 PSI. A good-sized lobster’s crusher claw exerts about 1000 PSI.

“I had a claw on my hand one morning, he was squeezing my finger, and not letting go. He’s got you and you think, that’s it, he can’t go no more, but then he’ll squeeze some more. My brother Kenny had to take a screwdriver to it. Kenny is a big man, and he had a big screwdriver, but it took him a few minutes to pry it off of my finger.”

A 27-pound lobster was caught off the coast of Maine in 2012. The claws were so large they would “break a man’s arm,” said Elaine Jones of the Department of Marine Resources.

“We don’t catch those kinds of monsters,” said Kelly. “The biggest one I ever caught in my traps was maybe 7 pounds, max. But that’s a damn big lobster, a foot-and-a-half long.”

29 million pounds of lobster were harvested on Prince Edward Island in 2014, much of it during the spring season, which is May and June. It is a limited entry fishery. “1200 lobster fishers land their catches at approximately 42 ports all around the province,” said April Gallant of PEI’s Agriculture and Fisheries. Many of them are pulled up from the north shore, from Malpeque to St Peter’s Bay. The Rustico fisheries are roughly the axis of the lobster world along that shoreline.

Besides North Rustico, there are the towns of Rustico, Rusticoville, and South Rustico, all named after a fisherman by the name of Rene Racicot, a French Norman who came to PEI in 1724. Racicot became Rustico among the Acadian-French settlers.

The reason the north shore was settled was fishing. After the deportation of Acadians by the British in 1758, and the eventual return of those who had hidden or survived drowning and shipboard epidemics, fishing was what meant life or death for their families.

“I’ve been fishing for 30 years,” said Kelly Doyle, “although I took a few years off, which was a little sabbatical.” After leaving PEI for Montreal in his early 20s, he returned in 1983. “I built a cottage, but I couldn’t get a job anywhere. The next spring I got offered a fishing job in North Rustico.”

Although fishing in North Rustico dates back more than two hundred and fifty years, groundfish stocks contracted in the 20th century. Shellfish and crustaceans, especially lobsters, emerged as the species of choice. Lobster landings almost tripled between 1960 and 1990.

In the early 1990s a moratorium was enacted limiting the taking of many kinds of groundfish. “We were shut down completely,” said Kelly. “No more white fish. All we were allowed was lobster, although we could still catch our own bait, like mackerel and herring, at that time.”

Nowadays lobstermen buy their bait. “I come in, pull up to the wharf, and Doiron takes every lobster I’ve got,” said Kelly. “I buy my bait from them, too.”

North Rustico’s Doiron Fisheries got its start when Aiden Doiron bought his first fishing boat in 1957. One day, when a man asked him for a cooked lobster, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a lobster, a pot, and cooked the lobster on the spot. The Doirons still sell fresh fish out of a shanty on the wharf.

“We cook lobster on the boat sometimes,” said Kelly Doyle.

Thirty years ago he often bagged his own bait for lobstering, late at night. “There was a freshwater run about 2 or 3 kilometers down Cavendish Beach, where the gaspereau would come up from the ocean, smell the fresh water, and spawn there. When they came back down we caught them in nets.”

Alewife is a herring called gaspereau in Atlantic Canada. Catching them meant waiting for them to swim back to the ocean with the tide at midnight. “We would net them by hand, standing in waist-high water. When we got them on shore they’d be flapping around and sand flying everywhere. We’d fill up 40 or 50 boxes and carry them by hand back to our pick-up trucks.“

Neither motor vehicles nor horses are allowed in the National Park, which is what Cavendish Beach is. “We’d ice them up for the morning, get home by 2, and then back up at 4 o’clock, 6 days a week in the season.”

There are 37 boats in the harbor at North Rustico. All of them are made of fiberglas, all are equipped with diesel engines, and all carry a trove of electronic gear. Hulls cost upwards of a quarter million dollars. The annual cost to operate Kelly Doyle’s boat, which he co-owns with Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since grade school, is nearly $50,000. “The word boat is actually an acronym,” he said. “It means break out another thousand.”

Seventy years ago lobster boats were all wood, ran on 6-cylinder gas engines, and most of them didn’t come with a cabin that anyone could stand up inside of. It wasn’t until the 1960s that windshields were added for protection against the elements.

“In those days in the winter motors were removed and taken home,” said Norman Peters of the Fisheries Museum. “Boats were hauled to a field and turned upside down to keep rain and snow out. I remember playing under the upside boats and finding bits of fishing line to use to fly kites.”

“Our boat is the Flying Spray,” said Kelly. “It’s hull number177, built in Kensington, so it’s called a Provincial. It’s a great lobster boat, very dependable, although a little on the rocky side. It’s good going into it, but it doesn’t like being turned. It throws you around a bit.

“Most of my career was in wood. The best thing about fiberglas is it doesn’t leak. Except, not like wood, they don’t float at all. If you put a hole in them they sink pretty well instantly.”

Lobstermen start their day early. “He gets up at 4:20 in the morning,” said Kelly Doyle’s girlfriend, Ryoko. “I make his breakfast and lunch and he’s gone before 5. I go back to bed and sleep a little more.”

Paul Doiron captains the Flying Spray and Kelly Doyle is the sternman. Both are in long johns through May and sometimes into June. “On top of those I wear insulated overalls and when I get to the boat I oil up,” said Kelly. “We put on oilskins, a full bib, and a jacket. It’s so you can stand in the rain for hours.”

After they’ve cleared the North Rustico harbor the first thing Paul Doiron does is turn on his GPS to locate their traps.

“The first guy I fished with only had a compass,” said Kelly Doyle. “But, it never really worked right for him. They fished by strings back then, by their compasses and landmarks. You would probably find your buoys, but on a dirty morning, no. They’re only so big floating in a big ocean out there.”

Fishermen on the island are restricted to 300 traps by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In the early 19th century lobsters were so abundant they washed up after storms. Islanders used wooden tongs to pick them up, although many were ashamed to be seen eating lobster because it was regarded as a poor man’s dinner. There used to be no rules about harvesting lobster. But, by the 1890s there were problems with declining stock.

“Many fishermen had from 1200 to 1500 traps,” said Norman Peters. In the latter half of the 20th century the fishing season has been shortened, fishermen must be licensed, and taking spawning lobsters isn’t allowed. “It’s the responsibility of those who are fishing today to conserve our fishery,” said Mr. Peters.

Once out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence the Flying Spray looks for its traps. “We’ve got 37 bunches of 8 traps and one trap of 4,” said Kelly Doyle. Traps are connected by a line, eight of them along a stringer, and attached to buoys with a unique color for easy identification. “There’s 8 traps between buoys and that’s called a set, or a full trawl. They’re all numbered in our GPS and we pick them up every morning.”

The Prince Edward Island gulf coastline is largely ledge and sand. When the frozen shallow waters thaw in April lobsters move in from the deeper ocean. They return to warm shoal water for egg-bearing females to hatch and release in springtime and early summer.

“Hard rock is what you want for lobsters, rock that looks like mountains,” said Kelly. “Sometimes they’ll cross sand. Most of the time sand is full of crabs and crabs hate lobsters. When lobsters cross sand they scare the crabs out and you can have a tremendous catch the next day. You’ve got to think like a lobster, about the depth of the water, how warm it is, and when you think they’re going to be there.”

When the fishing is good he, and often a hired hand, haul one lobster after another out of the traps they’ve pulled, slip rubber bands over the claws of the keepers, loading them into onboard tanks, and re-bait the traps. As the traps are lowered back into the ocean the most important rule for sternmen is to not step on rope, get snagged in the rope, and get dragged overboard.

“Lots of guys will get caught for a minute,” said Kelly, “but the last guy who drowned out of this harbor was Jackie Dussett in the 1960s. He got his leg caught and was just gone, overnight. The tide worked him loose the next day.”

Lobster fishing on Prince Edward Island is not usually unusually dangerous, but it is hard work, in more ways than one. Everything on a boat is hard. “Everything’s hard as steel,” said Kelly. “Or, it is steel. No matter, whatever you hit hurts.”

Boats bob and toss at sea since the ocean is never steady like dry land. “I’ve been hurt every year I’ve fished, banged up like an old man.” Working on a lobster boat means working on an exposed, slippery, and moving platform in weather that is bad as often as it is good. Tourists drown in small swimming pools. Fishermen are faced with miles of open water.

Next to logging, commercial fishing is statistically the second deadliest kind of work to be in, deadlier even than police work or firefighting. “Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“I come out of the cabin one morning last year, coming up the three steps, when something came off the sea and literally threw me out of the cab. The momentum of the boat picked my body up like it was weightless. I banged on the bulkhead and just like that you’re on the ground, hurting, black and bruised.”

Unlike many fishermen on Prince Edward Island, Kelly Doyle doesn’t come from a fishing family. The first Doyle came to the north shore from Ireland in 1847. He was granted land along was is now Doyle’s Cove. They raised thoroughbred horses and later bred black silver foxes for their pelts. When fox furs went out of fashion his grandfather and father mix farmed, growing turnips, barley, and wheat.

“I have three brothers and they all became fishermen,” said Kelly. “We weren’t fishermen, but I think it was in our blood. We were all at ease on the water. None of us got sick. But, I’m the only one who still fishes. It can be hard on you.”

In season the Flying Spray sails for lobster every day it can. Some days, like after a storm when the 7 kilometers of line they carry are tangled and need to be untangled, they are out for up to 15 hours. “Gear starts to move. Before you know it it’s all snarled, mine and everybody else’s. You’ve got to pull it up, bind your gear, and that’s rough.”

Lobster cages weigh about 20 pounds without the 44 pounds of concrete ballast in them. When they are wet they are more than 100 pounds. “Thank you to the man who invented hydraulics!” said Kelly. “Years ago it was all hauled by hand. The forearms of those guys in Rustico back then were like Popeye.”

Although not born to it, although his business interests have expanded to include Coastline Cottages and PEI Select Tours, and although it is exacting, physical work, Kelly Doyle plans to continue lobstering.

“I had been out of fishing for a few years, but bought back into it. My first year back I thought I was going to die. It was a tough spring, shitty weather, and I was going to bed at 7 o’clock, just beat up. It’s all about wind, which creates seas, which creates bouncing around like a cork.”

Seas can be dangerous and storms terrible. But, the lives of commercial fishermen are subsumed by their boats, the waters they sail, and the work they do. “Later part of March, you’ll hear a seagull on the coast, it just seems to draw you back,” said Francis Morrissey, a fifth-generation lobsterman in Tignish, on the northwest tip of the island.

“This is the best place in the world to be fishing,” said Mike McGeoghegan, past president of the PEI Fisherman’s Association.

Oceans are more ancient than anything, including mountains. Men have fished for more than 40,000 years, from about the same time modern humans moved into Europe. 1,100 kilometers of red sandstone shoreline rim Prince Edward Island, some of it sand beaches, some of it cliffs, all surrounded by the wide sea.

“I’m going to fish this year, at least I will as long as I’m on this side of the sod,” said Kelly Doyle. “To tell you the truth, if I die, I hope it’s out there.”

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.

She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the north side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.

She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.

“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour. I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”

Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.

“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”

Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember.

“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long. “My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”

The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of displacing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.

“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.

“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna Reid about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”

“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.

“I remember seeing people jumping off of it since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”

Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A trim fit young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league. “I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.

She may be a chicken on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.

Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first.

“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Ms. Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”

Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging, pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly meeting the New London Bay is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.

“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”

“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”

The plucky come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends. “Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.

“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”

“OK, I’ll jump,” the woman said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over.

“She jumped off and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”

Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”

Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both the Stanley and Southwest rivers, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.

Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”

Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the seas from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to themselves swim to where they want to go.

Jellyfish never give the crustacean freeloaders a second thought.

“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”

The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper.

In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.

“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.

“It felt like nuthin’.”

The bravery of boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.

“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.

On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna Reid, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”

Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.

“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”

The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.

“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”

Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”

A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.

“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I can jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”

She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards off the Stanley Bridge into the dark water of New London Bay.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Breathing Room

BM

If you can breathe, then it’s working.” Lemony Snicket

Many actors swear by yoga, from Matthew McConaughey to Naomi Watts to Robert Downey, Jr., because acting is largely a movement art and yoga on the mat is mostly about body awareness. Unless the role is Frankenstein or you’re Vin Diesel, more wooden than a talking tree isn’t usually in the script.

When Russell Brand dedicated himself to Kundalini Yoga he said, “these things are right good for the old spirit.” Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up every morning at 4:30 to practice yoga, according to People Magazine. “It kind of prepares you for everything, honestly,” said Jennifer Aniston.

God knows, Iron Man could use all the yoga he can get.

Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame superstar dancer singers plug in to the practice, too. Madonna has unrolled her mat down the aisle of jumbo jets. The spectacle of the Queen of Pop in down dog pose is worth the plane fare, given that the average ticket price to one of her shows is upwards of $400.00.

Even though yoga is great for mobility stability control, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. When the singer Rod Stewart was trying a beginner’s balancing pose at home, he lost his balance and fell into a fireplace. “Surely, if God had meant us to do yoga,” he said afterwards, ”he’d have put our heads behind our knees.”

Not many yoga teachers swear by acting. They usually swear about you not being your authentic self, pretending to be somebody else. One of the eight limbs of the practice is all about self-observation. In some respects all of the practice is designed to be an expression of your true self.

Bryde MacLean, a native of Prince Edward Island, an Atlantic Canada province, is an actor and a Moksha Yoga teacher. Two Canadian teachers founded the practice in 2004, focusing on strength, therapeutic flexibility, and calming the mind. It is in the vein of hot yoga, although not as hot as Bikram Yoga, nor as rigid in its sequencing.

“It’s built with the long-term health of your spine in mind,” said Bryde.

Moksha Yoga, which means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, is environmentally active, one of its pillars of purpose being ‘Live Green’, and active in its communities, as well. There are more than 70 studios, most of them in Canada. They offer weekly karma classes with all the profits, currently more than $3 million, going to groups supporting human rights and holistic health.

“I was 21-years-old, working in a bar, hanging with my friends, having a lot of anxiety”, said Bryde. “Ryerson University had turned down my application. My sister recommended yoga. I had never taken a class in my life. Tara was dating Ted Grand, and he recommended it, too.” Ted Grand, her future brother-in-law, was at the time creating what became Moksha Yoga.

Bryde MacLean took her first class in the basement of a church in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. “It was myself and a bunch of women who were much older than me, in a definitely not heated space. We did lots of slow breathing and long stretches. It was a powerful experience. I decided I could get behind that.”

When Ted Grand offered her the opportunity to join his team and go to Thailand for yoga teacher training, she made sure she didn’t miss the team bus. “I wanted to travel and I wanted a skill I could travel with. I jumped right into the hot room. I loved it.”

She taught full-time in Toronto for a year before moving to Montreal, where she also taught, as well as attending Concordia University. “I had a full course load, but I wanted to study what I’m passionate about, so I applied to Ryerson again, and got in.”

Ryerson is a public university in Toronto, its downtown urban campus straddled by the Discovery District and Moss Park, focusing on career-oriented education. Bryde Maclean enrolled in the 4-year Performance Acting program. Long before she wanted to be a yoga teacher she had wanted to be an actor. She was scripting performing directing shows from the time she was six.

“We’d haul out Halloween costumes and my parent’s old clothes and dress up. We’d write fantastical stories and use construction paper to build our sets.” She and her friends play acted in garages, attics, and basements. Her parents encouraged her.

“They inspired me.”

Her parents were Sharlene MacLean and Bill McFadden. Her mother was pregnant with Bryde the summer of 1984 at the same time she was stage-managing ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. As an actor Sharlene MacLean has played the maniacal Lady MacBeth in ‘Macbeth’ and the prattling Minnie Pye in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, working on stage and on film, working around the births of her four children.

Her father worked and performed long and often at the Victoria Playhouse. Victoria is a seacoast village on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. “I spent a lot of time in that theater as a little person,” said Bryde “My dad and I lived in the building down the street that is now the Chocolate Factory.”

Her parents played the aging couple in ‘On Golden Pond’ in 2012 at the Victoria Playhouse. They had both starred in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ during the theater’s first season in 1982, thirty years earlier. “I had never seen them on stage together, not as an adult,” said Bryde.

By the time she graduated from Ryerson University in 2011 she was teaching other people how to be yoga teachers. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, other than enough about teaching classes myself and being a good listener,” said Bryde. She became Manager of Yoga Teacher Trainings for Moksha International for 3 years.

“I dove into that. There’s a big community vibe. It pushed me to learn how to do things I didn’t consider myself capable of.”

2011 was a big year in more ways that one. She graduated with a BFA, got a full-time job, and got married, too. Jeremie Saunders, her boyfriend fiancée husband-to-be, was in the same class in the same program in the same university as her. One thing led to another. After graduation he trained to become a Moksha Yoga teacher.

“So, there we are, we do all the same things,” said Bryde.

They do all the same things, but with a difference. Yoko Ono once said the most important thing in life was, “Just breathe.” When Bryde wakes up in the morning she breathes free and easy. When her husband wakes up in the morning it’s with the thought, at least I’m still breathing.

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jeremie Saunders is in a lifelong fight with the inherited life-threatening disease. It is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs. Infections and inflammation lead to a host of problems. 70 years ago, if you were born with it, you were likely to die within the year.

Even today, while cystic fibrosis has been made livable, there is no cure. No matter exercise regimens treatments antibiotics, median survival is less than 50 years. “I’m living with this terminal illness,” said Jeremie. “I know that my life expectancy is significantly shorter than most people.”

Two years ago he ran an idea for a new podcast by two of his friends. A month later they recorded their first episode of ‘Sickboy’. The podcast is about the day-to- day of living with an illness. Four months later it officially launched and three months after that it was included on iTune’s Best of 2015 list.

Although it is the essence of innovation to fail most of the time, when time is of the essence it’s better to succeed as soon as possible.

“It’s a comedy podcast,” said Bryde. “It’s laughing about the absurdities that happen when you’re sick, all the embarrassing and difficult things people usually don’t talk about.”

“I’ve always been a fan of honesty,” said Jeremie. All good comedy comes from a place of honesty. He doesn’t try to keep the beach ball underwater. “Every time I would talk to someone about being sick, this fog of awkwardness would fall over the conversation. It’s empowering to drop that, let it go, and not feel confined or chained down by your circumstance.”

Living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, teaching Moksha Yoga, co-starring in short films by Tiny Town Media, in early 2015 Bryde spied a last minute casting call for a summer show in Charlottetown. “I was lucky to see that.” She landed the role of the mom in ‘Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad’ in the Studio 1 Theatre at the Confederation Centre. She and the show were a hit. “Sets, characters, director score a hat trick,” wrote The Guardian in its review.

“Bryde MacLean says much with her guarded, often wordless reactions, like a smile tucked into her shoulder.” It was her first professional appearance on stage.

When actors unroll their mats it’s to learn to control movement. It helps them be more aware of where their physical bodies are in space and the dynamics of change in that space. “Yoga helps me get very present with my body and what’s going on with it,” said Jennie Olson Six, who is, like Bryde MacLean, an actor and yoga teacher.

It also helps develop command over one’s breath. But, that kind of command can be a double-edged sword.

“Yoga helps, definitely, as an actor But, I think in some ways, because I did my yoga training before my actor training, it has hindered me.”

Actors practice breath control so that they can manipulate the range, volume, and speed of their speaking. They might breathe in to the count of four, just like in yoga classes, but when they exhale they do it through their teeth with an sssssss sound. When they come back to four they cut the exhale crisply. It’s a way of practicing ending speech on an exact syllable, making it toe the mark.

When it doesn’t, sometimes actors will flap their lips, making a brrrrrrr sound.

“When you breathe in yoga it’s to create a steady, measured breath, focusing on it, calming your nervous system,” said Bryde. “You don’t want that when you’re acting. You want your breath connected to your voice. When you breathe to speak you want your breath to come from a place that’s connected to your impulse. Yoga is about observing your impulses, but not reacting. Acting is reacting.”

In Shakespeare’s day acting was called a performance of deeds. It’s the same today. “Acting is reacting in my book,” said Morgan Freeman. Where actors want to go in their work, even though they’ve walked through it a hundred times, is to express feeling by following an instinct, not by controlling it. Magic on film and stage is created, not by staying in the rehearsal hall, but by being in the moment.

“You need to have a cool head, however, not get caught up in whatever you’re working on, and go off into another dimension and never return,” said Bryde.

“Yoga has been good for me in terms of focus, my ability to concentrate, and be able to handle my anxiety. It keeps my feet on the ground. It rebalances my body, too, which is the only thing I have to work with.”

While at Ryerson University she played King Richard the 2nd in a student production. “He’s a hunchback, crooked. After two hours of him every day I had to balance out that side of me. Maintaining a healthy body is a super important thing for a performer. Otherwise, you end up with injuries.”

She went back to her roots in 2016, appearing in ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island. It was her second professional appearance on stage. It was the same show her mother managed on the same island thirty-two years earlier when she was carrying her daughter-to-be. If anyone was ever born to play one of the leads in the Noel Coward play it was Bryde MacLean.

That same summer her husband starred in the comedy ‘The Melville Boys’ at the Victoria Theatre, the theater she had roamed explored left no stone unturned as a tyke. The Watermark Theatre seats about a hundred people. The Victoria Playhouse seats about fifty more than that.

Spectacle sells, splashy musicals, casts driven by stars. But, small gatherings at indie theaters can have a big impact. Little theaters, summer stock, some in your own backyard, often have big talent. “Bryde MacLean has probably the most difficult role to play – the straight woman – and she carries it like a pro,” wrote theater critic Colm Magner. “She has great fun combusting before our eyes later in the play.”

“I love small, intimate performances,” said Bryde. “I like to be right in there with the audience.” It works for her because she often works in film. “I tend to be a little smaller in my performance size. You can do the subtlest things, so subtle, but so real.”

She kept up her practice all summer at a Moksha studio in Charlottetown, taking bar classes, a mixture of ballet, pilates, and yoga. “I love it, but it kicks my butt.”

There are many reasons people take up yoga, among them stress relief, flexibility, and physical fitness. “They come to yoga to get a cute butt, but you can’t escape all the other benefits of it,” said Bryde. “They stay because they get more mindful, awake, in touch a little bit more.” If they stick with it, the reasons for doing yoga change. The focus shifts from the physical body to the subtle body. Almost 70% of people and 85% of teachers say they have a change of heart over time, changing their focus to self-actualization and spirituality.

“Their buns still get really tight,” she added with a teacher’s keen eye.

After ‘Blythe Spirit’ closed Bryde worked on a 5-week shoot of a horror film called ‘But What Are You Really Afraid Of’. She wasn’t an actor in a trailer waiting to be called for her next scene. She was one of the workers who serviced the trailer. “A craft services job takes care of all the food on the set, the crew that does the dirty work,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Although she continues to teach Moksha Yoga in Halifax, and continues acting, on stage and film, she is writing a screenplay for a feature film, producing a play she hopes to get on the road in 2018, and has launched another new podcast with her husband.

‘Turn Me On’ is a show based on sharing the couple’s sex life with others through interviews, candid conversations, and discussions about sexual orientation. “I don’t need crazy shock value to be interested,” said Bryde. In any case, guests on the podcast are free to talk about their sex lives “whether they’re whacky or not.”

“We are definitely having conversations that feel taboo,” said Jeremie Saunders.

Franklin Veaux, an author and sex educator, believes that what Bryde and Jeremie are doing is doing their audience a good service. “Sexual shame undermines people’s happiness and self-esteem, prevents them from being able to understand what they need and advocate for it and hinders intimacy,” he said.

Although ‘Turn Me On’ is not necessarily about heavy breathing, sex has always been a bestseller. It is often more exciting on stage and screen than it is between the sheets, but it is still emotion in motion, and a big part of nature and human nature. “I couldn’t have imagined we’d have over 12,000 listeners so quickly. It’s very cathartic for me.”

If it is about anything, yoga is about slowing down, slowing down your breath, your body, and your brain. It’s been said once you slow down you will connect with your heart. As many irons that Bryde MacLean has in the fire is enough to take your breath away.

“I wrestle with attachment and detachment,” she said.

Although detachment is a linchpin of yoga, nobody ever sincerely does it without a strong feeling of attachment to doing it. Almost everything we do is invented, so that detachment can be a kind of freedom. But, getting on the mat or breathwork or meditation is about involvement. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga a generation ago, on which most of today’s yoga is based, once said it is 99% practice and 1% theory. ,

“Lazy people can’t practice yoga,” he pointed out.

The way to get started is to get going get doing, opening doors, working hard at work worth doing. “I’m casting a net out for a bunch of potential opportunities. What matters is doing what you’re passionate about,” said Bryde MacLean.

Not much is ever accomplished without energy and passion, but to get anywhere you have to act it out.

“When you are inspired by some extraordinary project all your thoughts break their bounds and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Just do and all is coming.”

Catching your breath will take care of itself.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com

Opening Act

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Before they turned the Victoria Hall into the Victoria Playhouse, and before they spent the next thirty years transforming the theater into ‘PEI’s Longest Running Little Theatre’, Pat Stunden Smith and Erskine Noble Smith bought a house in Victoria. The house, in which Pat Smith lives to this day, had bathrooms, running water, and electricity.

Their house in Point Deroche, where they had been living for three years, had no bathroom, no running water, and no electricity.

Victoria is a village on a sheltered harbor on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It is an arts community of family-run businesses. The year-round population is just a few heads above a hundred. Point Deroche is a pocket-sized community on the north shore. There are some summer cottages and a quiet gulf- side beach.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Point Deroche.

“Erskine and I homesteaded there,” said Pat. “We lived in a house that had been built in one day.”

Reggie and Annie McInnis, a brother and sister whose home burned down, built the emergency house in Point Deroche. “They were subsistence farmers. They had no money. They were poor people, but kind and generous.”

The McInnis’s gathered driftwood, had it milled, and cobbled the house together. They nailed the roof down when the sun was shining. It served as shelter against a rainy day.

“It was unfinished on the inside,” said Pat. “You could see all the wormholes from the sea worms that had eaten into the wood.” As small as the house was, there were three rooms and two more upstairs. There was a well and the Smiths built an outhouse.

“Erskine hauled in a Silver Moon wood cook stove.” In the wintertime the stove never went cold. “That’s how we heated the house.”

Erskine Smith, a native PEI-man, lived the length and breadth of Canada. His father was in the Armed Forces and was routinely transferred from base to base. Military brats are time and again drawn to the stage because they’ve learned how to make a fast impression at the drop of a hat.

Pat Smith moved to Prince Edward Island from Montreal to work at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. “I applied to work in the art gallery, but ended up as a tour guide,” she said.

After graduating from university she applied again and was accepted as an assistant curator. She worked at the gallery for several years.

“Then I got itchy feet.”

She traveled, lived in Toronto, and returned to Prince Edward Island. She enrolled at Holland College School of Visual Arts and trained in weaving and silver work. Erskine Smith met his wife-to-be the one and only time she ever appeared on stage.

“I had just moved back to the island, and I thought I needed to meet people, so I joined the Drama Club. I never wanted to be on stage after my first show, which was Brigadoon, but Erskine was in the audience, and we met at a party afterwards.”

Brigadoon is a musical about a mysterious village that appears out of thin air only one day once every one hundred years, and where a man and woman stumble onto each other and fall in love.

“There’s a nice little house in Victoria for sale,” Erskine said to his wife one night after work. He was working in children’s theater, lunchtime performances, and cadging shows around the island. He had taken on the role of Ronald McDonald, as well, becoming the jump suited big shoe big heart clown character for the whole of the Atlantic Canada region.

“He went to every parade and every hospital for seven years,” said Pat. “Kids loved him and he loved kids. He could just touch people. He had children die in his arms.”

The next day the family drove the family car through the heart of the crescent-shaped island to Victoria.

“After my daughter Emily turned three, and I got pregnant with my son Jonathan, no running water became an issue. We were young, but I was tired of washing diapers by hand, and my parents were desperate to help us find another house.”

The Smith family looked at, walked through, and ran the taps in the house. “Yeah, this is a good move for us,” they all agreed.

Victoria is a handful of blocks one way and a handful of blocks the other way. The Victoria Hall, built by a local carpenter between 1912 and 1914, was built at the exact center of the village. It is a wood shingled building with a gambrel roof. For more than seventy years it was where lobster suppers, quilting bees, and community council meetings were held.

It was home to the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute.

“The identity of Victoria is in the buildings that have been here for generations,” said Stephen Hunter, for many years the chef and owner of the Victoria Village Inn.

But, the Trans Canada Highway bypassed Victoria in the 1960s and many businesses left. The village declined as people moved in search of work. “It went into a lull for about two decades,” said Henry Dunsmore, owner of the Studio Gallery.

“When we moved here the hall was a community hall, but it wasn’t being used by the community,” said Pat. “It was empty.” Except for the New York City performing arts troupe that came some summers and put on shows.

“The village loved them, but they left a mess. They were kids, renting an old house, and living the life of Riley, although they had nothing. They raided the Women’s Institute room in the hall and took everything, dishes, silverware.”

While Erskine Smith tromped up and down the Maritimes in his red oversized Ronald McDonald shoes, Pat Smith started up a kindergarten, which she soon moved into the basement of the Victoria Hall.

“Don’t quit your day job,” play-actors are often warned. Pat went on to teach kindergarten for fifteen years. Since so many entertainers are the voices of cartoon characters on TV and in the movies, her classroom might have been a kind of informal inadvertent in-house training ground.

One day in 1981 Frieda and Loren McLelland, who owned a craft shop in the village, visited the Smiths. “Is there any way you could get the theatre going again?” they asked. “It would be good for the community.”

“It hadn’t occurred to us,” said Pat.

“Yeah, I think we can do it,” said Erskine.

“Actor people, do we want any of them?” asked the community council cross-examining the proposal.

“It wasn’t all easy sailing. What made the difference was that we were living in the community,” said Pat. “If they weren’t happy they knew where we lived.”

Where they lived was a few minutes walk from the Victoria Hall.

Erskine Smith recruited himself as actor and Artistic Director. “He looked after everything that happened on stage. Storytelling was who he was.” Charlene McLean and Bill McFadden came on board. Pat Smith became the General Manager, running the box office, searching for funding, writing press releases and programs, and everything else. “It’s a small community theatre. When things need to get done everybody needs to be on board 100%.”

They strategized, developed a mission statement, and opened a bank account. They recruited a Board of Directors.

Then they took a close look at the hall.

“It looked completely different,” said Pat.

The stage was painted black. The Women’s Institute had been using the stage for their suppers. The walls were painted, too, and the ceiling was false. “They had an oil furnace up in what is now our parts room and they pumped the heat down through the ceiling. We took that false ceiling out.“

The seats were hardwood pressed-back chairs. They were attached to two-by-fours because the floor was raked. The back legs of all 153 seats had been sawed down three inches and bolted to the two-by-fours. “The back legs had to be shorter so the seats would be level,” said Pat.

“We had a fund-raiser and auctioned off those chairs. I don’t know where, but they all actually went.”

The theater lacked a proscenium, which is the arch that frames the stage. It is the metaphorical fourth wall, a kind of window around the set. They are helpful to actors because on the other side they can pretend to not hear what the audience is saying, or not saying. It helps the company to mind their own business.

The proscenium was fashioned by chain saw and grinder. David Bennett, a set designer, did the job on his own after everyone else had gone home. “He was a creative guy. He marked the pine boards with a magic marker, did the initial cuts with a chain saw, and then used a small grinder,” said Pat.

“Everybody pitched in to make sure things worked.”

They tracked summer sunset times to make sure they knew when the theater’s windows could be opened during a performance. “We didn’t get air conditioning until 2004,” said Pat. “The windows were darkened and as soon as it got dark outside we would open them so there would be a cross draft in the auditorium.”

The Victoria Playhouse mounted its first show the summer of 1982. “All there was on the island at that time was the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and then we did what we needed to do and there was the Victoria. It was a very different landscape back then.”

Opening nights only happen once. After all the preparations and rehearsals you’re on your own. The lights go down and the curtain goes up. It helps, however, that opening night is for your friends and community. There were just enough seats in the new theater for them.

The Victoria Playhouse’s first season ran two months. It featured three plays running in repertory. The plays were Dear Liar, The Belle of Amherst, and The Owl and the Pussycat. “The Owl and the Pussycat want to get married – but they’re in the middle of the sea! They reach the land where the Bong Trees grow, and alight to find a vicar and a ring.”

Everybody was on board and everybody was all in. Everything came alive. Pat and Erskine Smith pulled it off.

Theatergoers go to plays because they want to have a great time at the theater. The best show halls, like the Victoria Playhouse, are more like verbs than they are nouns. It’s an event as much as it’s a place. It’s where the drama comedy musical happens, bold funny truthful. You can’t bail out of a story once it’s gotten going, even though most shows at small theaters are just a few characters in a room living it up.

What happens in a lifetime can sometimes be random and disordered. The walk of life is learning about the going by going.  In performance on stage the story about what’s happened is put into order and fleshed out. When the season ended Erskine Smith went to work reading plays for the next season, which in time came to mean eighty performances seven days a week all summer long. He continued to do so for thirty years until his untimely death in 2013.

“Erskine was a real storyteller,” said Pat. “Oh, yeah, he loved stories. As long as I knew him, we would go to parties and all of a sudden everyone’s in the kitchen and there’s Erskine telling stories.”

Erskine Smith was the glow in the kitchen, the man in the smoke of the campfire, the storyteller who loved the stage. Pat Smith made sure the nuts and bolts were in all the right places. Today their son and daughter, Jonathan, set carpenter and scenic painter, and Emily, Assistant General Manager, spend the off-season on Prince Edward Island getting ready for the next season.

Standing in the wings Erskine Smith would be happy to see who’s working in the wings.

 

Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com